Disney Legend Bill Justice died February 10, 2011, a day after he turned 97 years old. He died of natural causes in a Santa Monica nursing home where he had spent the last few years of his life. The few people who visited him during that time told me that Bill’s mind remained remarkably clear and upbeat when he was asked about his earlier career at the Disney Studio.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to interview many of “Walt’s original cast,” as I call it, of Disney animators and Imagineers. Some I got to know better than others—and Bill Justice was one of those folks.
I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Bill at the various Mouse Club and NFFC events in the Anaheim area in Southern California over the years. He was always generous with his time and patient with those of us eager young fans who wanted to know everything about Disney.
It always brought a smile to my face to hear his gentle humor and to see his considerable artistic skill, especially at drawing a variety of Disney characters on paper plates and sailing them through the air sometimes 30 feet or more into the audience. Often, they seem to have been aimed at attractive young women who eagerly brought them up front for an autograph since Bill had cleverly omitted that one detail.
In all those years, I never made time to sit down and formally interview him until he visited the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida when I was working as an animation instructor at the Disney Institute. One night in March 1997 when I was performing comedy magic and making balloons animals at Give Kids the World, a location devoted to terminally ill children and their families, I was pleasantly surprised to see Bill Justice and his wife show up.
Bill entertained the kids and their families by doing sketches of Disney characters in a version of his well-known act. Afterward we talked about our mutual friend, Disney Legend Jack Hannah, who had directed many of the shorts that Bill animated. Bill got very sentimental and we agreed that even though he had shared stories of his time at Disney at his various presentations and in his limited-edition book, Justice for Disney (Tomart Publications 1992), it might be a good idea to record a more formal interview for those who might never get a chance to see him speak.
So the next day, over an extended lunch at the Disney Institute, Bill graciously answered some questions before his presentation that evening for guests and staff at the beautiful cinema at the site. Two years later at the Second Disney Institute Animation Event in 1999, in between his helping guests learn the basics of Disney animation, I got Bill to clarify and expand on some of his previous interview answers and to share some additional information. Bill had been telling the same stories to audiences for so many years that some of his prepared responses slipped into our discussion but fortunately, I was able to prompt some fresh responses, as well.
Those interviews were reprinted in Volume 3 of the amazing “Walt’s People” series of books edited by Didier Ghez (link).
A quick Internet search will easily bring up just the tip of Bill’s many accomplishments from his animation of the characters Chip ’n’ Dale in their classic theatrical cartoons to his creation of the first official Disney character costumes at Disneyland to his early programming of Audio-Animatronic characters (in particular The Pirates of the Caribbean) to his experimental work in stop motion to a host of special projects including murals at Walt Disney World.
Disney Legend Bill Justice, photographed at a Disney event in 1993, was well known for drawing character sketches on napkins as souvenirs for his fans. Here he sketches Goofy for the photographer's daughter. Photo by Frank Anzalone.
After 42 years with the Disney Company, Bill retired in February 1979 and was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1996. He left many artistic legacies but I think he will be best remembered for all the happiness he brought to Disney fans at various informal gatherings over the years.
As a farewell tribute to Bill, here are some out of the ordinary excerpts from the interviews I did with him.
Jim Korkis: Tell me a little about the infamous "Snow White Orgy" at the Narconian that no one seems to want to talk about on the record.
Bill Justice: In 1938, Snow White was a huge hit. You can’t believe how big it was. Walt and Roy announced that they were going to throw this huge, incredible "thank-you" party for everyone who worked for them. Wives, husbands, children, friends…all of them were invited to a weekend at the Narconian Hotel on Lake Narco [a desert resort near Palm Springs where Walt would later have his Smoke Tree Ranch hideaway].
All costs from the rooms to food and drink and, in fact, whatever we wanted to order, would be taken care of by Walt. You know at the Studio, there was a strict dress code in those days for employees. Men came to work in jackets and ties although they were allowed to take them off when they sat down at their drawing boards. Women were not allowed to wear pants, and sober-colored skirts and blouses weren’t very appealing.
The ink-and-paint girls were separated from the animators. The Disney Brothers had sent out a memo that if you were in animation you weren't supposed "to dip your pen in the company's ink and paint" which was their way of saying, "behave yourself with the ink and paint girls." If you told a dirty joke within earshot of Walt, you might get fired. He didn't put up with any of that stuff.
So, anyway, for two years, all of us had been under terrible pressure, working long hours day and night to finish Snow White. When I came on at the end of production, I still felt that stress. When we arrived at the Narconian Hotel there were pools to swim in, tennis courts, a golf course, live music, and plenty of food and alcohol and something just snapped.
An animator picked up an ink-and-paint girl and dumped her into the pool fully clothed. Followed by others jumping in and all hell broke loose pretty quickly. Swimsuits flew out the windows. There were naked swim parties. People got drunk and were often surprised what room they were in and who they were sleeping next to when they awoke the next morning.
Freddie Moore walked off one of the upper floor balconies thinking he was on the ground floor and ended up in a tree fortunately. You know, he was one of my idols. I never saw Freddie Moore do a bad drawing.
Walt was horrified at the shenanigans. He and his wife drove home that next morning. He never referred to that party again and in fact if you wanted to keep your job, you didn’t mention it either when you were working at the studio. We never had a party like that again.
JK: The first character costumes at Disneyland were borrowed from John Harris' Ice Capades show. You were the one who designed the first true Disney costume characters.
BJ: Walt told me, "Other places can have thrill rides and bands and trains. Only we have our characters." The costumed characters were very important to Walt. He said, "Bill, always remember we don't want to torture the people who are wearing them. Keep in mind they've got to be as comfortable as possible." The first concern was always safety and the second was accuracy. If Donald Duck can kick like a Rockette, I've done something wrong in terms of proportion and being true to the character.
It’s not too easy because to make them look like the animator’s drawings is almost impossible. For instance, Donald Duck. Everyone wanted a good Donald Duck costume. I looked all over Los Angeles and every place and I couldn’t find anybody with a 3-inch neck and three webbed toes on his feet.
I did find a little guy who was about 4-feet-6. He wasn’t a dwarf or a midget. He was just very small. I brought him up to WED and I had him photographed front view, side view, back view, etc. I had the photographs blown up to four feet six and put tissue paper over them and drew what would fit him. It was supposed to look like Donald Duck. But this guy we photographed sort of hung around and found out what we were spending on this costume and he said, “I want $200 every time I put it on.” So we didn’t hire him. We found another guy who was bow-legged and he looked better in it and we’ve had a Donald Duck ever since.
One of the ones you wouldn’t think would be so popular is Eeyore. Winnie the Pooh characters became popular quickly. The children just seem to relate to Eeyore. I learned that not every character can or should be funny. I ended up designing over 130 character costumes and I am very proud of that.
There are a couple of generations of kids out there who think of Mickey and Minnie and those characters as just the costumed characters who walk around Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Some of them have never even seen a Mickey Mouse animated cartoon. There was a long interval where we didn’t make any short subjects except for specials like Ben and Me or things like that. Mickey’s Christmas Carol was the first in years to use the classic characters in a cartoon. All through these years, these characters like Mickey and Minnie and Donald are just as popular or more popular than when those cartoons first came out in the old days.
JK: You were able to accomplish some amazing things with audio-animatronics. What were your thought processes?
BJ: My first assignment was to program the Pirates of the Caribbean. I did the most sophisticated character in that show who was the auctioneer. He had almost as many moves as Lincoln. And I guess they figured if I could handle that one then the rest of the figures would be simple. It took me six weeks to program the auctioneer.
People forget that they are heavy machines. That's what they are, not real people. Programming with those early crude systems is difficult to describe and difficult to accomplish. Later, we got into computers with a console where you could turn knobs but with the pirates I had to cut out all these discs. It was terrible.
I had the scene of the auctioneer filmed in live action so I could use it as a guide. Walt came in and saw the auction scene and he checked everything out including the chickens. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Good job, Bill." This was the only time he ever touched me, and one of the few times he ever thanked me in person. It was the last time I ever saw him.
The knowledge of animation is what makes Audio-Animatronics come to life. It helps the illusion of making these mechanical figures seem real. Subtleties like when you blink your eyes you usually turn your head. The actual eye blink is really just an on and off signal. It clicks and it looks strange. What I would do to avoid that was to turn the eye under the lid before it closed so it didn’t seem so sudden a move. People don’t realize how intricate animation is. When you smile, your eyes close slightly. That sort of thing. They could look like puppets if they were not programmed properly. It is the same way with cartoon animation.
The things you can’t do with Audio-Animatronics. I could write a book. Lincoln was sitting in a chair and he had to get up and talk and sit back down. A normal person it would take two and a half seconds to stand up but if I do that he would start to shake when he hit the top because of the weight of the figure. Or if I sat him down at normal speed he would break the chair. But you do it too slow and he looks like he has back trouble or something. So the way we get around that is not put the spotlight on him until he has almost reached the top and then dim the light fast as he starts to sit.
I programmed the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World. We had 35 presidents on stage and there is a roll call and they acknowledge their name. There are just slight, subtle movements to acknowledge. Washington gestures to Lincoln and Lincoln stands up and he gives this speech. He had to look dignified so I kept his moves very simple. Shift of weight, put hands behind him, little gestures and things like that. He wasn’t a speaker like a Hitler who is waving all over the place with his gestures.
The big problem was to keep the other 34 presidents “alive” but not have them steal the scene to do something that was distracting. The people who built these things, the guys over at MAPO who put them together would complain, “Why did we put all that stuff in them? They barely move in the show!” But they move enough to look alive.
It’s like directing a scene in a movie. You want the audience to look at who’s speaking but everyone else can’t be frozen. That’s not real. They have to have some movement even though it is very subtle.
JK: How would you like to be remembered?
BJ: I spend most of my time quietly now. I’ve had a wonderful life and I wish I could do it all over again.
I hope I can keep drawing for many years. If you are thinking, “Oh, gosh, I got to make another drawing and then another drawing,” then you are in the wrong business and you better get out because you don’t like to draw and that’s what this business is all about.
People always ask how you draw all these characters and I started telling them that you buy these “magic” markers, put them on the paper and just hang on. You are supposed to start with a circle when you draw a character but I’ve drawn some of these characters so often I guess I see the circles in my mind so I can just start drawing with the eyes and it all seems to work out. I kind of try to memorize drawing. I see it before I put my pencil to paper.
Those of us who worked behind the scene all those years, we appreciate your interest. People writing the books on Disney now are people who never worked there and they are coming around to us for stories. Even I started interviewing friends of mine to help me jog my memory before I wrote my book. I think I am the only one who has had such a vast experience in all these different phases of the company so I love sharing my stories.
Walt Disney and the people I worked with at the Studio wrote the book on quality animation, I'd like to think I helped with a page here and there.